George Sewell and Kenneth Walsworth will never forget the sight of Frank Morris shortly after he emerged from his flaming shoe shop during the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 1964.
Sewell was a police officer for the Town of Ferriday and Walsworth drove a truck for Holsum Bakery out of Natchez. Sewell was driving the town patrol car -- a 1965 white Pontiac -- on the night of the fire, Walsworth was riding in the back seat and in the front passenger seat was the late Timmy Lofton, who like Sewell was a police officer in Ferriday.
These three men were the first to talk to Frank Morris as the fire still raged. They transported him to the Concordia Parish Hospital, where he died four days later.
Sewell and Walsworth were each 23 years old in 1964. Today, each is 66.
"I had nightmares over that," said Sewell, who lives in Belle Grove Subdivision near Vidalia. "It shook me bad. I knew Frank and liked him. He was a good fellow and I'd never heard anything bad about him."
"It scared me half to death," said Walsworth, who is retired and lives in Natchez. "Frank was in pitiful shape and I think he knew he was in his last days."
For Sewell, who had been on the police force for about a year, the experience was a jolt.
"I was young and naive," he said. "After I graduated from Monterey High School, I hitchhiked to Ferriday. I spent my first days living in Ferriday in a junk car in Cecil Beatty's junkyard."
Sewell and Walsworth said they don't know who set the fire that destroyed the shoe shop and mortally injured Morris, who had to run through flames and an explosion before getting out of the building.
"I use to go there and get a shoe shine," said Walsworth.
The FBI is now reinvestigating Morris' murder.
Sewell said he regrets that he and Walsworth had driven out of town in the minutes before the fire, leaving the door open for two or three men, maybe more, to pull into the alley next to Morris' shop and set the building ablaze.
"Had we not left town," said Sewell, "this may not have happened."
WATCHING FOR DRUNKS ON 84
Much of the evening, said Sewell, he and Lofton were sitting in their patrol car which was parked at the corner of Fourth Street (Hwy. 84) and Louisiana Avenue at the main intersection in town across the street from King's Hotel. At some point after midnight on Dec. 10, 1964, Kenneth Walsworth got off work from Holsum Bakery in Natchez where he drove a truck.
Walsworth and Lofton were brothers-in-law at that time.
"Sometimes I would stop and get in the car and we'd all talk," said Walsworth. "That's what we were doing that night."
"We would sit there a lot of times waiting for the drunks," said Sewell, who said most of the bars in Ferriday and from the strip along the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. would begin closing after midnight, though some stayed open all night. "After the shifts would change at the plants in Natchez, some of these men stopped at the bars and had a few drinks before going home."
As things grew quiet in Ferrday, Sewell said the men headed out on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. He says it was a custom a couple a times a night to drive the patrol unit in that direction and to "open the car and blow the soot out. That leaded gas would carbon up the valves."
"We were also young and bored," said Sewell. "Sometimes we drove out that way just to see who was at the bars. We weren't suppose to leave town."
Because of this, Sewell and Lofton originally didn't tell the FBI that they had driven the patrol car out of town prior to the fire. But witnesses told the FBI they saw the vehicle on the Ferriday-Vidalia Hwy. around the time of the fire.
"We knew we would be in trouble if the police chief (Bob Warren) and the mayor (Woodie Davis) found out," said Sewell. "We weren't suppose to leave town."
Mayor Davis said they "weren't suppose to have a passenger" in the car either "due to the liability."
The town had only one patrol car, said Sewell, and that car was used daily on three shifts. When they left town, Morris' killers went into action.
Sewell recalls getting a radio call from Junior Harp. Sewell said Harp lived with his wife in the apartment above the police and fire station and answered the phone at night.
"He said there was a fire at Frank Morris'," said Sewell. "We raced back to town. I slowed down in front of Frank's place and I thought, 'Lord, this was no fire, this was an explosion.' There was glass and pieces of cinder blocks all over the place. It looked like somebody had thrown a stick or two of dynamite."
"I remember seeing that mess in the road," said Walworth. "There were lots of pieces of cinder block" and glass in front of Morris' shop.
Both men recalled that the building was in flames.
MORRIS PRAYING 'OH, LORD...'
Sewell said as they passed the shop and before they got to Billups Service Station they spotted Morris, who was naked and running through an empty car lot. The cars on that lot, owned by Huffman Auto Agency, had recently been moved but were returned to that location a few days after the fire.
Sewell and Lofton emerged from the car as Morris ran toward them.
"I patted the fire out on his head," said Sewell. "Then I pulled the shoulder straps from his tee-shirt and I think Timmy pulled off the waistband off his underwear. They were smoldering. Frank was in bad shape."
Walsworth told the FBI that as Morris was running the "skin on his back" was peeling and falling.
"Frank was kind of praying, saying, 'Oh, Lord...,'" recalled Walsworth. "I think he knew he was in his last days."
The FBI interviewed both police officers several times, and also interviewed Walsworth.
Sewell recently looked over one of the FBI reports on the interviews obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He said he remembers much of the information in the report but doesn't remember every thing mentioned.
"It was 43 years ago," he said.
In the FBI's interview with Sewell, it was noted that Morris told him that "two white men had poured gasoline in the shop and had thrown rags on the gasoline, and that one of the men had a shotgun." Morris told the officers "he did not know the men, and he did not furnish any description of them."
Sewell said that today he doesn't remember Morris telling him that one of the men was throwing rags.
Sewell told the FBI that Morris appeared to be "in his right mind when he told them...that two white men were in his shop, one pouring gasoline and throwing rags. When Morris stuck his head out they threw a gun on him and told him get his head back inside...." Sewell "gathered from this that the two men were inside the shop and that Morris had been in his room in back of the shop."
Sewell believes that the men who set the fire did not think Morris would be in the shop and that he surprised them. He also wonders if Morris recognized the men but didn't know them by name.
MORRIS' ARMS, FEET BLEEDING
According to FBI reports, Lofton said that when he got out of the patrol car he noticed "a group of Negroes standing across the street in front of Joe's Fruit Stand," estimating that there were about eight to 10 people there. Immediately afterward, he "saw Frank Morris running across the empty lot between his shoe shop and the Billups service station, coming toward the patrol car." He heard someone nearby yell that "there was someone on fire."
Lofton said Morris was "practically naked, with only portions of his undershirt strap and the waistband of his shorts remaining, except for several small particles of clothing stuck to his body. These pieces of clothing were burning and his hair was burning, and Sewell ran to him and stopped him just as he reached the street near the patrol car, and he tore off the burning pieces of clothing from Morris' body." He said Morris "appeared to be badly burned all over his body, and in touching his skin," he "observed it was hard and crusted."
Lofton heard Morris say that "two white men had been in the shop, that one was pouring kerosene from a can in the shop, and that he threw a rag on the kerosene, while the other man held a pump shotgun." Morris told them he told the man to stop pouring kerosene, whereupon the man with the shotgun told him to get back inside or he would blow his head off. Morris also remarked that there may have been a third man in a car outside." Morris said kerosene was not thrown on him. He said "he did not know" who the men were.
Morris didn't say "just where the men were when he first observed them, but he (Lofton) assumed he meant they were inside the shop."
"Morris was sort of jumping up and down when he reached the car after coming out from the direction of his shop," Lofton reported, and said Morris complained about being cold, and "appeared to know what he was saying..." Lofton "got the impression that when Morris saw the two men in his shop, Morris had come out of his living quarters at the rear of the shop and had surprised them, and after he observed one man pouring kerosene and told him to stop, the other man pointed a shotgun at him and told him to get back in, probably meaning to get back in his living quarters."
He said Morris was "bleeding on his arms and feet from the burns."
HE 'WASNT GOING TO MAKE IT'
Walsworth told the FBI he first "observed a man trotting and stumbling toward the service station. This man was about ten yards from the burning building and crossing the vacant car lot....(the) man appeared to be on fire and small pieces of something afire were dropping off him onto the ground. Whether this was particles of clothing or burning flesh and skin, he does not know."
After the two officers got Morris in the back seat, they and Walsworth climbed into the front seat and headed to the hospital. Before getting in the car, Walsworth said Morris "was sort of jumping up and down. He was no longer burning and it was not necessary for anyone to and no one did put water on him."
Walsworth told the FBI that the sight of Morris' condition -- "bleeding with skin dangling from his body" -- made him "sick and he did not look at him again."
The attendant at Billups said Morris "left tracks of blood everywhere he stepped." He said Morris willingly ran to the police officers. The man heard Morris say to the officers: "Take me home."
Walsworth told The Sentinel that as they raced to the hospital Morris was praying, as if he had a sense "that he wasn't going to make it."
A BLACK SEDAN
Sewell recalled that he often visited Morris in the shoe shop.
"He did a lot of work for me," said Sewell. "I had horses and Frank would work on my bridles and saddles. He also worked on my boots."
Working as a police officer in Ferriday during those days was at times trying, he said.
"At one point we had the Klan in town, the Deacons for Defense and then the FBI right in the middle," Sewell said. "It's a good thing the FBI was around to investigate because we certainly wouldn't have known how to investigate something like that. We had no training in those days."
But Sewell said his cooperation with the FBI may have cost him. About a year after the fire, a barn he kept on the old fairgrounds in Ferriday was set on fire, destroying a saddle and killing one of his horses.
"I always suspected the Klan," he said, "because I was talking to the FBI."
He remembers FBI agents Don McGorty, Jim Wooten and John Pfeifer. Pfeifer also investigated the Morville Lounge whorehouse and alleged connections to the Concordia Parish Sheriff's Office.
The attendant at the Billups station recalled seeing an older model black sedan race out of the ally besides Morris' shop, and turn left on Hwy. 84 in the direction of Vidalia. A cook at Haney's Big House about a block south of Morris' shop said she heard a car racing down the street in the direction of Vidalia about the time she heard an explosion and later spotted the fire.
Sewell said he doesn't recall passing a car as he raced back into town in the patrol car.
"But there were several side streets that car could have turned onto," said Sewell.